Actress/comedienne Cloris Leachman died in her sleep at her home in Encinitas, California, on January 26, 2021. She was 94. The Associated Press reported that Leachman’s publicist Monique Moss announced Leachman’s death and that Leachman’s daughter Dinah Englund was at Leachman’s side when Leachman passed away.
Leachman was a versatile entertainer who starred in numerous TV shows and movies. On TV, her best known role was as Phyllis Lindstrom in the 1970s TV series “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff “Phyllis.” She won eight Emmy Awards, including two for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Leachman also had roles in the TV shows “Lassie,” “The Facts of Life,” “Touched by an Angel” and “Malcolm in the Middle.” She became one of the oldest contestants on “Dancing With the Stars,” when she competed on the show in 2008.
Her best-known films included “Young Frankenstein,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Last Picture Show” (for which she won an Oscar) and the animated “The Croods” movies. Although most of her roles were supporting roles, she made an impact as a talented character actress. She also made her mark on stage in theater roles, including the the original Broadway production of “South Pacific,” a Broadway production of “As You Like It” and a 1990s touring musical revival of “Showboat.”
Leachman was born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa. She was the eldest of three daughters and was named after her mother Cloris. Her father Berkeley Claiborne “Buck” Leachman owned a lumber company. A former Miss America contestant (she was Miss Illinois), Cloris attended Northwestern University in the School of Education.
She later studied at Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio in New York City, and she began acting in theater before branching out into television and movies. Her first movie appearance was as an extra in 1947’s “Carnegie Hall” and didn’t have her first real speaking role in a movie until 1955’s “Kiss Me Deadly.”
Cloris was married to film director/producer George Englund from 1953 until their divorce in 1979. They had five children: Adam, Bryan, Dinah, George and Morgan. She is survived by all of her children, except for Bryan, who died in 1986 at age 30.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the retirement community of The Villages, Florida, the documentary “Some Kind of Heaven” features an all-white group of mostly senior citizens who live in The Villages, with a few people of color shown who are non-residential employees.
Culture Clash: Some of the people in the documentary aren’t entirely comfortable with the self-contained “bubble” lifestyle of being in this retirement community.
Culture Audience: “Some Kind of Heaven” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing how people in a Florida retirement community live, but don’t expect to see any real diversity in this community.
The first few scenes of “Some Kind of Heaven” almost look like an infomercial for The Villages, Florida—the retirement community that is the subject of this documentary. Residents gush about how close to perfect their life is in The Villages, which had a population of about 120,000 to 130,000 people in the 2010s decade, according to various statistics. This movie was filmed from 2018 to 2019. But as the documentary goes on to focus on four people in particular, it’s revealed that things aren’t quite so rosy as they first seem to be at The Villages.
“Some Kind of Heaven” is the first feature-film from director Lance Oppenheim, who mixes whimsical travelogue-type shots that look like idyllic recreational group activities for senior citizens and contrasts these scenes with the harsh realities of what some of these residents are dealing with in their private lives. The four people who get the spotlight are:
Anne Kincer and Reggie Kincer, a married couple who celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary during the filming of this documentary.
Barbara Lochiatto, a widow whose husband Paul had died about four months before she was filmed for the documentary.
Dennis Dean, a homeless bachelor who was living out of his van and illegally squatting at The Villages.
The Villages, located in central Florida’s Sumter County, was co-founded in the 1970s as a development for mobile homes. However, business was slow and didn’t flourish until Harold Schwartz and his son Harold G. Morse (who took his stepfather’s last name) began developing The Villages as a middle-class retirement community in 1983. Schwartz and Morse wanted The Villages to be self-contained and marketed as a “Disneyworld of retirement communities.” There are no amusement park rides in The Villages, but there are numerous activities that are typical of what’s offered on cruise ships.
The documentary includes archival footage of Morse (who died in 2014) explaining that the idea was to make The Villages a place so full of activities and conveniences, that residents would feel like they didn’t have to leave The Villages borders for anything else. It’s technically not a gated community, but it has security people who patrol the area, to give it an “exclusive” and “protected” ambience. Morse also mentions that the retro architecture and landscaping of The Villages were made to remind retirees of the places where they grew up.
And apparently, that includes reminders of a racially segregated America, since there are almost no people of color who seem to live in The Villages, based on what’s shown in the documentary. The few people of color who are featured in documentary are those who work in this retirement community, but don’t live there and certainly aren’t shown in the myriad of residential group activities (such as dancing, swimming or playing golf) that get considerable screen time in the documentary.
As an example of how people of color are mostly relegated to submissive “servant” roles that are meant to comfort the residents, there’s a scene where Lochiatto gets her nails done at a salon, and the Asian female manicurist gives Lochiatto some sympathetic advice on being a widow. The manicurist says that she was a widow and is now remarried. The documentary shows that the people in The Villages don’t seem to care about having racial diversity in their community, since they never talk about it and they readily admit that they like to live in this community “bubble” that has been manufactured for them. What they don’t say in the film is this reality: People tend to move to areas where they feel welcome, which is why some communities are racially diverse and others are not.
It should come as no surprise that The Villages is most definitely a community that believes in the “Make America Great Again” political slogan originally made famous by Ronald Reagan and later used by Donald Trump. It’s a known fact that most of The Villages residents are conservative-leaning Republicans. However, “Some Kind of Heaven” goes out of its way to erase this big part of The Villages’ identity. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t want to alienate potential viewers of this documentary by even mentioning that The Villages is a hub of conservative political activity.
In the production notes for “Some Kind of Heaven,” director Oppenheim explains: “I saw an opportunity to tell a story that went beyond partisan politics and spoke to something that I found more existentially interesting and unsettlingly relatable: the absurd lengths that many Americans go to—especially those nearing the end of their lives—to live inside of a fantasy. The Villages—by design—offers a decidedly conservative vision of the American Dream, and my goal in making this film was to inhabit that fantasy and call it into question. By documenting the experiences of those who didn’t fit into the community’s advertised way-of-life, I was able to explore something more honest, open and universal about how the human struggle—no matter how much you try to evade it—continues throughout the rest of life.”
Despite the questionable decision to exclude any mention of The Villages’ identity as a mostly conservative Republican community, “Some Kind of Heaven” is more entertaining than not, even if several scenes look staged. The dialogues often look semi-rehearsed. That’s not to say that people in the documentary had lines of dialogue fed to them. But “Some Kind of Heaven” is the type of documentary where you get the impression that the people being filmed were asked to repeat their words and actions, so that the filmmakers could choose the best versions for the movie.
The film’s editing is at times haphazard and random. One minute, the documentary is showing viewers a roomful of women who all say, one by one, “Hi, my name is Elaine,” as they all wear “Elaine” name tags. The next minute, something else is shown, and these women are never seen in the documentary again. There’s no explanation of who these Elaines really are and what kind of group discussions or activities they have. The documentary has scattershot, brief introductions to other groups of people, who are then also never seen again.
The beginning of the movie features a montage of The Villages residents giving various praise about their community. There are comments such as, “Everything is so positive,” “This is nirvana,” and “When you live here, you kind of become younger.” People are shown in various polished and playful settings, looking as if they’re always in the middle of a dream vacation. Throughout the film, there’s some impressive work from cinematographer David Bolen, who sets up some very scenic, colorful and eye-catching shots.
Anne Kincer says, “When you move here, it’s kind of like going to college.” Dean observes, “Where else can you party seven days a week? It’s a great place.” Lochiatto explains why she moved with her husband Paul from Massachusetts to this Florida retirement community: “The Villages seemed like a magical, beautiful place. I decided that I would sell my house, and we decided that we would move down here and start fresh.”
But slowly, the cracks of discontent begin to show with the documentary’s four main subjects. The passion has dwindled in Anne and Reggie Kincer’s marriage, and they mention that they feel more like “roommates” than a married couple. To make matters worse, Reggie (who says he feels like a misfit in The Villages) has become hooked on illegal drugs in his quest for “spiritual enlightenment.” He’s shown smoking what looks like hashish, he admits that he also regularly indulges in marijuana, and later in the documentary, he has to go to court after being arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine. (His arrest is not shown in the documentary.)
Dean, who says he was 81 years old when this documentary was made, is a self-admitted hustler. He somewhat brags that the only reason why he’s hanging out at The Villages is so he can find an attractive, financially generous woman whom he can date, with the hope that she will financially support him and let him move in with her. Dean has been going to the community’s nightclubs and churches with no luck, but he says he’s been having better luck at the community’s main public swimming pool. The documentary shows him making moves on a few women, who see right through his act and don’t fall for his pickup lines.
Lochiatto’s storyline is the least interesting of the documentary’s four main subjects, simply because her situation of being a lonely widow isn’t that unusual in a retirement community. Lochiatto, who often looks sad and rarely has a genuine smile, gripes that she wishes she could go back to Massachusetts, but she can’t afford to do that because all of her savings are gone. She also seems self-conscious about still having to work full-time (she answers phones in an office job), compared to most of The Villages residents who are comfortably retired.
Later in the documentary, Lochiatto shows more of a personality when she takes a group acting class and gives an impressive dramatic monologue. She also has a mild flirtation with a golf cart salesman named Lynn Henry, who tells her up front that he’s “playing the field” by dating more than one woman. However, it’s clear that Lochiatto is starting to develop a crush on him, based on how she finally starts to smile and appear more light-hearted after meeting him.
Henry is a big fan of singer Jimmy Buffett (whose fans are nicknamed Parrotheads), so he invites Lochiatto to a Parrothead outdoor party. However, Lochiatto pouts and looks hurt when Henry spends time dancing with a pretty blonde at the party. It’s as if the documentary wants to show that even in old age, someone can still feel like an awkward teenager when it comes to dating.
The drug addiction drama with the Kincers isn’t as explosive as it could have been, mainly because Anne is a stoic, non-confrontational spouse who prefers to be in denial about the problem for too long. Reggie is the type of person who believes that his spiritual health should involve doing a lot of tai chi and doing a lot of mind-bending drugs. Even when Reggie is clearly hallucinating and seeming to lose touch with reality—at one point, Reggie says that he’s died and has been reincarnated as God—Anne still doesn’t really want to deal with it.
Anne comments with a weary tone on Reggie’s escalating drug addiction and its damage to his mental health: “I don’t understand it and I don’t like it, because I think it’s a dependency on something that just is not good for you. But I can respect what he found and what he’s looking for.”
Anne eventually admits that she thought about leaving Reggie, but she decided against it because she believes in her wedding vows to stay married in sickness and in health. Reggie’s arrest seems to have shocked her out of denial about how bad his drug problem is and how it could have long-lasting, negative effects on both of their lives. Reggie decides to be his own attorney in the court proceedings, and this decision leads to unintentionally embarrassing results for him. The documentary uses the courtroom’s closed-circuit camera footage to show what happened.
In court, Reggie talks too much and talks out of turn, prompting the judge to remark in open court that Reggie is the rudest person he’s even dealt with in court—even ruder than rapists and murderers. Reggie then tries giving smarmy compliments to the judge, which doesn’t work. Reggie then tries to appeal to the judge’s sympathy by claiming he has health issues, such as getting a recent MRI and experiencing mini-strokes. The judge’s decision in this court case is not a surprise, considering that there’s an obvious racial difference in the U.S. criminal justice system when it comes punishment for drug possession and other crimes. If Reggie had been a person of color, his punishment most likely would’ve been very different.
The documentary shows that Dean, whose background is very vague, also has a criminal record, and he moved to Florida to avoid something from his past. He’s obviously a skilled liar/con artist, so whatever he says about himself is questionable. The filmmakers definitely were not concerned with fact-checking anything he said. It’s pretty obvious that Dean was chosen to be in this movie only to liven up the film, because a lonely widow and two emotionally conflicted elderly spouses look kind of boring in comparison.
While Dean illegally squats on The Villages property, there are hints that the community’s security people and some other residents know that Dean is homeless and shouldn’t be there, but no one bothers to kick him out. Dean outright denies that he’s homeless when certain people tell him that they know he’s living out of his van. Dean also shows an anonymous note that was left on his van that said, “I know that you don’t live here. If you want to avoid trouble, don’t come back.”
However, Dean doesn’t take this note seriously and he continues his hustling games. How does he get money? He says he has a background in handyman work, so he does occasional odd jobs. For food, he often gets free food at churches and at places that serve buffet meals. And he takes showers in his swim trunks in the swimming pool areas that have public showers. He deals with other hygiene issues (such as brushing of teeth and shaving) in public bathrooms.
Dean’s low point in the movie comes when he completely runs out of money, and there’s a montage of him making desperate phone calls to people he knows and asking to borrow money from them. After a series of rejections, he starts dropping hints to the people he calls that if he doesn’t get the money he needs, he’ll kill himself. It’s quite the display of emotional manipulation.
Finally, an ex-girlfriend of his named Nancy Davis comes to Dean’s rescue (what she does won’t be revealed in this review), but even that’s not enough to satisfy him. During his “I’ve run out of money” point in the movie, Dean comments on his life: “I said from the get-go that I would live fast, love hard, and die poor. I’m right there now. I’m poor.”
Although Dean is the most memorable person in the documentary, he’s also the most mysterious. Any background information about Dean is only told by him, and even that information is questionable because he seems to be a pathological liar. He vaguely mentions a past marriage and a string of bad relationships with women. He doesn’t mention having any living relatives, except for his mother.
And it’s clear that he doesn’t go to church for religious reasons but to see how he can get money or favors from people he meets in church. Dean has a private counseling session with one of the church ministers named Rev. Norman Lee Schaffer. This scene is almost comical because it’s obvious that Dean doesn’t care at all about religion or spiritual beliefs but wants some kind of handout.
Rev. Schaffer is a middle-aged man who mentions that he had a wild past as a touring musician. But at around the age of 40, Rev. Schaffer says he changed his ways because he didn’t want to end up having the kind of life that Dean has. After they pray together, Dean seems disappointed that the reverend didn’t give him any money, food or other donations. And so, Dean continues trying to hustle women.
One of the odd things about this documentary is that there’s no mention of Dean, Lochiatto and the Kincers having any children or grandchildren, nor are they visited by any relatives. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to convey a sense that The Villages is a place that “disconnects” people from the real world. But this family omission also makes the people in this documentary less relatable, almost like they’re playing a part in a movie, instead of truly letting a documentary crew show all aspects of their lives.
Surprisingly, the homeless and rootless Dean is the documentary’s only featured person who’s shown having a connection, albeit a brief one, to a family member who lives outside of The Villages. There’s a short scene of Dean talking to his mother on the phone and lying to her about being employed and saying that his life is going very well. Dean’s mother must’ve given birth to him when she was very young, because Dean says more than once in the movie that he’s 81. But given all the lies he tells in the movie, who really knows if that’s true?
“Some Kind of Heaven” has enough moments where people will be curious to see what happens and how the movie is going to end. That curiosity will keep viewers engaged, but this documentary has a tendency to treat people more like plot devices and photo opps instead of as well-rounded human beings. The Villages retirement community might want to be a bubble removed from reality, but “Some Kind of Heaven” ultimately made a very safe and passably entertaining attempt to burst that bubble.
Magnolia Pictures released “Some Kind of Heaven” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 15, 2021.
With seven nods, including Best Feature, the abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is the top nominee for the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards. For the first time, the Spirit Awards show will not be held the day before the Academy Awards. Instead, the Spirit Awards ceremony will take place on April 22, with a live telecast at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on IFC and AMC+. The 2021 Academy Awards will take place on April 25. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both ceremonies are expected to be mostly virtual. Also for the first time, there are television categories at the Spirit Awards. The Netflix limited drama series “Unorthodox” and the Apple TV+ docudrama series “Little America” lead the way in these TV categories, with three nominations each.
Eligible movies were those released in 2020 that had a production budget of no more than $22.5 million. Therefore, several critically acclaimed 2020 movies with budgets higher than $22.5 million were not eligible, including the Netflix films “Da 5 Bloods,””Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
As for what defines an “independent” TV show for the Spirit Awards, Film Independent president John Welsh told Variety in a September 2020 interview that it would depend on a TV show’s “aesthetic, original provocative subject matter, unique voice and diversity. The types of work that we celebrate on the film side, and TV side, they’re going to look very similar. … Somehow these singular voices are finding their way into television and making a mark on the culture. We are remiss if we don’t celebrate that.”
Here is the complete list of nominees for the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards:
BEST FEATURE (Award given to the producer. Executive Producers are not awarded.)
Producers: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Producers: Todd Black, Denzel Washington, Dany Wolf
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Producers: Sara Murphy, Adele Romanski
Producers: Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Chloé Zhao
BEST FIRST FEATURE (Award given to director and producer)
Producers: Inuka Bacote-Capiga, Jordan Fudge, Rishi Rajani, Jennifer Semler, Lena Waithe
Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Producers: Toby Halbrooks, Tim Headington, Jeanie Igoe, James M. Johnston, Theresa Steele Page, Neil Creque Williams
Director: Edson Oda
Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Mette-Marie Kongsved, Matthew Linder, Laura Tunstall, Datari Turner
Sound of Metal
Director: Darius Marder
Producers: Bill Benz, Kathy Benz, Bert Hamelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche
JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD – Given to the best feature made for under $500,000 (Award given to the writer, director and producer. Executive Producers are not awarded.)
The Killing of Two Lovers
Writer/Director/Producer: Robert Machoian
Producers: Scott Christopherson, Clayne Crawford
La Leyenda Negra
Writer/Director: Patricia Vidal Delgado
Producers: Alicia Herder, Marcel Perez
Writer/Director/Producer: Isabel Sandoval
Producers: Darlene Catly Malimas, Jhett Tolentino, Carlo Velayo
Writer/Director: Merawi Gerima
Director/Producer: Alex Thompson
Writer: Kelly O’Sullivan
Producers: James Choi, Pierce Cravens, Ian Keiser, Eddie Linker, Raphael Nash, Roger Welp
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Mike Makowsky, Bad Education
Alice Wu, The Half of It
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
Kitty Green, The Assistant
Noah Hutton, Lapsis
Channing Godfrey Peoples, Miss Juneteenth
Andy Siara, Palm Springs
James Sweeney, Straight Up
Jay Keitel, She Dies Tomorrow
Shabier Kirchner, Bull
Michael Latham, The Assistant
Hélène Louvart, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Joshua James Richards, Nomadland
Andy Canny, The Invisible Man
Scott Cummings, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Merawi Gerima, Residue
Enat Sidi, I Carry You With Me
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
BEST FEMALE LEAD
Nicole Beharie, Miss Juneteenth
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Julia Garner, The Assistant
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
BEST MALE LEAD
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Adarsh Gourav, The White Tiger
Rob Morgan, Bull
Steven Yeun, Minari
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
Alexis Chikaeze, Miss Juneteenth
Yeri Han, Minari
Valerie Mahaffey, French Exit
Talia Ryder, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Yuh-jung Youn, Minari
BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Colman Domingo, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Orion Lee, First Cow
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Glynn Turman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Benedict Wong, Nine Days
ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD – Given to one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast
One Night in Miami…
Director: Regina King
Casting Directors: Kimberly R. Hardin
Ensemble Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.
BEST DOCUMENTARY(Award given to the director and producer)
Director/Producer: Alexander Nanau
Producers: Hanka Kastelicová, Bernard Michaux, Bianca Oana
Directors/Producers: Jim LeBrecht, Nicole Newnham
Producer: Sara Bolder
Dick Johnson is Dead
Director/Producer: Kirsten Johnson
Producers: Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness
The Mole Agent
Director: Maite Alberdi
Producer: Marcela Santibáñez
Director/Producer: Garrett Bradley
Producers: Lauren Domino, Kellen Quinn
BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM (Award given to the director)
Directors: Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho
Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Night of the Kings
Director: Philippe Lacôte
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time
Director: Lili Horvát
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Director: Jasmila Žbanić
PRODUCERS AWARD – The Producers Award, now in its 24th year, honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality independent films.
SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD – The Someone to Watch Award, now in its 27th year, recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition.
Director of The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
Director of Farewell Amor
Director of Bull
TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD – The Truer Than Fiction Award, now in its 26th year, is presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not yet received significant recognition.
Director of Landfall
Director of Pier Kids
Director of Stray
BEST NEW NON-SCRIPTED OR DOCUMENTARY SERIES (Award given to the Creator, Executive Producer, Co-Executive Producer)
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children
Executive Producers: Jeff Dupre, Joshua Bennett, Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, John Legend, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius
City So Real
Produced by: Zak Piper, Steve James
Executive Producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Alex Kotlowitz, Gordon Quinn, Betsy Steinberg, Jolene Pinder
Executive Producers: Christina Clusiau, Shaul Schwarz, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Brandon Hill, Christian Thompson
Co-Executive Producers: Andrey Alistratov, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg, Lauren Haber
Executive Producers: Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Amy Goodman Kass, Vinnie Malhotra, Jihan Robinson, Michael Bloom, Maria Zuckerman
Creators/Executive Producers: Stephen Warren, Johnnie Ingram
Executive Producers: Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Peter LoGreco
Co-Executive Producers: Erin Haglund, Sabrina Mar
BEST NEW SCRIPTED SERIES (Award given to the Creator, Executive Producer, Co-Executive Producer)
I May Destroy You
Creator/Executive Producer: Michaela Coel
Executive Producers: Phil Clarke, Roberto Troni
Executive Producers: Lee Eisenberg, Joshuah Bearman, Joshua Davis, Arthur Spector, Alan Yang, Siân Heder, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon
Executive Producers: Tracey Scoffield, David Tanner, Steve McQueen
Creator/Executive Producer: Hanna Fidell
Executive Producers: Michael Costigan, Kate Mara, Louise Shore, Jason Bateman, Danny Brocklehurst
Co-Executive Producer: Daniel Pipski
Creator/Executive Producer: Anna Winger
Creator: Alexa Karolinski
Executive Producer: Henning Kamm
BEST FEMALE PERFORMANCE IN A NEW SCRIPTED SERIES
Elle Fanning, The Great
Shira Haas, Unorthodox
Abby McEnany, Work in Progress
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Never Have I Ever
Jordan Kristine Seamón, We Are Who We Are
BEST MALE PERFORMANCE IN A NEW SCRIPTED SERIES
Conphidance, Little America
Adam Ali, Little America
Nicco Annan, P-Valley
Amit Rahav, Unorthodox
Harold Torres, Zero, Zero, Zero
BEST ENSEMBLE CAST IN A NEW SCRIPTED SERIES
I May Destroy You
Ensemble Cast: Michaela Coel, Paapa Essiedu, Wruche Opia, Stephen Wight
Culture Representation: The documentary “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one Asian) discussing the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, a Colorado rich girl who was brutally killed on Christmas Day 1996, when she was 6 years old.
Culture Clash: The unsolved case has been controversial because investigators and prosecutors disagree over evidence and who might be the prime suspect or suspects.
Culture Audience: “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” will appeal primarily to people interested in this case or in true crime overall, but the documentary does not reveal any new facts that are helpful to this case.
Because there have already been so many news reports and documentaries about the JonBenét Ramsey case, any new ones that come along almost never have new information that can help make progress in the case. Almost every documentary about the case seems to have an agenda to push only one or two theories of who killed JonBenét Ramsey, the 6-year-old girl who was murdered on Christmas Day 1996 in her millionaire family home in Boulder, Colorado. This highly disputed case remains unsolved because there are conflicting accounts about the crime-scene evidence and numerous theories about who committed the murder.
It’s rare for a JonBenét Ramsey documentary to truly include perspectives of people who have very diverse viewpoints and theories about the case. “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (directed by Kim Duke) is one of those “agenda” documentaries, because it seems less concerned about interviewing people with a variety of perspectives and more concerned about being a one-sided tribute to Andrew “Lou” Smit, who was a prominent investigator for the Boulder district attorney’s office on the JonBenét Ramsey case. He was also an unpaid private investigator for the case when he stopped working for the Boulder D.A.’s office.
Smit (who died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 75) firmly believed that an unknown intruder or intruders committed the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The documentary includes interviews with people who say the same thing (including JonBenét’s father John Ramsey), but not any interviews with people who believe in other theories. Furthermore, a copious amount of time in the documentary looks like a fawning biography of Smit instead of a well-rounded investigation that looks at all sides of this contentious murder case.
The documentary pushes a narrative that Smit was a crusading and often-misunderstood investigator who constantly battled over this case with the Boulder Police Department, because the Boulder PD immediately put JonBenét Ramsey’s parents at the top of the list of suspects. The documentary (which uses a lot of the same archival footage that have been in many other JonBenét Ramsey documentaries) includes clips from Smit’s personal diary-type audio tapes that he made during the investigation. However, these audio tapes do not reveal anything new, unless you want to hear some ranting from Smit about how he felt mistreated by the Boulder PD. An epilogue in the documentary mentions that the Boulder PD declined to participate in the film, because the Boulder PD has a policy not to comment on the JonBenét Ramsey case.
It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Smit refused to believe the Ramseys could be guilty because he thought that they seemed like nice people. In his audio tapes, Smit says that people like the Ramseys don’t kill their children, and he had a gut feeling they weren’t guilty. What happened to the crime investigator rule that even if people who appear to be “nice,” it isn’t enough of a reason to decide that they can’t commit a crime? It’s about evidence, not personality. It’s no wonder that Smit got a lot of criticism for not being objective enough in this case.
Smit often accused the Boulder PD of having tunnel vision by not properly looking into other suspects. However, Smit displayed a certain amount of tunnel vision of his own with very biased actions during his investigation, by going out of his way to show the Ramseys that he was on their side. The documentary mentions that during Smit’s investigation while he was working for the Boulder D.A., Smit would park in front of the Ramseys’ house every day to pray for them and even invited John Ramsey to pray with him too. While this praying activity with a possible suspect might be considered noble by some people, it’s actually very unprofessional for a murder investigator to act this way with a witness who’s under suspicion while the investigator is working on the case.
Although there have been very divisive opinions on who committed the murder, these are the indisputable facts, which have been widely reported and are reiterated in the documentary: JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in her home sometime during the night or early-morning hours. Her parents (businessman John Bennett Ramsey and homemaker Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey) and JonBenét’s older brother Burke, who was 9 years old at the time, were also home at the time of the murder. All of them have denied having anything to do with the murder. The Boulder D.A. Office cleared the Ramseys as suspects in 2008, mainly because the Ramseys’ DNA did not match the unknown male DNA on JonBenét’s clothing that was on her dead body.
On the morning of December 26, 1996, Patsy called 911 to report that JonBenét was kidnapped. At the crime scene was a three-page, handwritten ransom note that was written on Patsy’s notepad and using a pen that was owned by the Ramseys. When the police arrived at the Ramseys’ 11,000-square-foot, three-story house, John and Patsy had already invited several of their friends and neighbors over to the home to comfort them. The Ramseys called some of these visitors over to the house before they called the police. Unfortunately, all of these people in the house inevitably contaminated the crime scene.
Instead of securing the crime scene and telling the visitors to leave, the Boulder police officers let the visitors stay and asked John to search the house again for JonBenét. John found JonBenét’s body in a basement-like area of the house. An autopsy determined that JonBenét had blunt force trauma to her head and had been strangled with a wiry cord that was still tightly wound around her neck. There are disagreements among investigators over whether she had been hit on the head first or had been strangled first. JonBenét had also been sexually violated with one of Patsy’s broken paintbrushes that was found near JonBenét’s body.
Although a former schoolteacher named John Mark Karr (born in 1964) confessed to the murder in 2006 and was arrested for it, it was later proven that Karr gave a false confession, and he was never prosecuted for the murder. He wasn’t even in Colorado when the murder happened, and his DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene. Karr is now living as a transgender female named Alexis Valoran Reich.
Whatever people think about the JonBenét Ramsey case, the main theories of who committed the murder identify these four possibilities:
An unknown intruder or intruders
People who believe that the Ramseys were involved think that the Ramseys know more than they’re telling and that the Ramsey family is covering up the truth. (Patsy died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 49.) The severe ligature strangulation of JonBenét indicates that it was done by an adult.
Those who think Burke was the real culprit have a theory that Burke brutally hit JonBenét on the head with an unknown object during an argument, and the blow possibly left her unconscious. According to the theory, John and Patsy found out and perhaps thought JonBenét was dead, and so the parents might have panicked because they were afraid of the scandal that it would cause their prominent family.
The “Ramseys are guilty” theory usually believes that John and/or Patsy then further assaulted JonBenét to establish another cause of death and to make it look like a stranger did it, in order to confuse investigators. A kidnapping was staged to also confuse investigators, according to the “Ramseys are guilty” theory. People who believe this theory think that even if one person in the Ramsey family actually committed the physical crime, the other family members who were home at the time eventually knew about it and helped cover it up.
Most people who think the Ramseys are guilty point to clues that the killer or killers seemed comfortable taking a lot of time to commit the crime without fear of being caught in the act. There was the highly unusual and long ransom note, written on a paper and pen from the Ramsey home. Handwriting analyses ruled out John as the writer of the note, while Patsy could neither be completely identified nor completely ruled out as the writer of the ransom note.
Everyone agrees that the words of the ransom note indicate that it was written by an educated adult. The only fingerprints found on the note were those from Patsy (who said she found the note), investigators and visitors who were in the house. The intruder theory is that the intruder could have worn gloves.
Another big clue, which was not mentioned in this documentary, was that the autopsy of JonBenét found some undigested pineapple in her stomach, indicating that she died shortly after eating the pineapple. A bowl of pineapples was on the kitchen counter when the police arrived at the crime scene, but the Ramseys denied knowing anything about it and said that it was unlikely that JonBenét prepared the pineapple meal herself.
Was it an intruder? And if so, what kind of intruder would feel comfortable enough in the Ramsey home to kidnap a child but stay long enough to feed the child a pineapple meal? And why use Patsy’s notepad in the house to write the ransom note instead of writing the note somewhere else in advance?
The Ramsey family was out attending a party earlier that evening, and the intruder theory is that an intruder could have been hiding in the house for hours and written the ransom note while alone in the house. (The Ramseys did not have all of their doors locked when they were away and when they were at home.) But no one can seem to explain the sequence of events that led to JonBenét eating pineapple in the middle of the night shortly before she died.
Police found that there were no signs of a disturbance in JonBenét’s bedroom on the night of the crime. Investigators have different theories on how JonBenét could have gone from sleeping in her second-floor bedroom, to being murdered, to her body being found by her father in an area of the house that’s below ground level and was known to few people outside of the Ramsey family. John, Patsy and Burke have maintained that they were asleep when the murder happened, and that they didn’t know that something had happened to JonBenét until the next morning.
People who believe the intruder theory think that the intruder used a stun gun to subdue JonBenét, because there were marks resembling a stun gun on the side of JonBenét’s face and on her back. People who believe that John, Patsy and/or Burke were involved think that JonBenét likely went down to the kitchen for her pineapple meal voluntarily, and something happened that caused her violent death. The marks on her face and back also matched a detached section of a toy train track owned by Burke, according several news reports with details of what the police found at the crime scene.
The documentary also mentions that Smit was able to show in video evidence that an intruder could have easily entered and left the side window to the room where JonBenét’s body was found. Smit demonstrated by climbing in and out of the window himself. However, what the documentary didn’t mention is that photographic evidence at the crime scene showed that after JonBenét’s body was found, an open window in that room had undisturbed dust and cobwebs on the window sill. If there was an intruder, the undisturbed dust and cobweb evidence definitely can raise doubts that someone entered or left by that window.
A neighbor reported hearing the sound of a frightened child screaming from the Ramsey house on the night of the murder. The documentary mentions that Smit found that there was a pipe in the room where JonBenét’s body was found that can carry sound from that room to outside of the house, but the sound cannot be heard on the upper floors inside the house. It fits into the theory that John, Patsy and Burke Ramsey couldn’t hear any signs of distress during the murder, if they were asleep in their bedrooms as they claimed.
However, the documentary doesn’t question the other side of this belief: If a kidnapped child was crying out that loudly inside the house while being murdered, how did the killer know that other people in the house wouldn’t be able to hear those noises? Furthermore, several people in the documentary describe JonBenét’s murder as slow and tortuous. And yet, it’s never explained why a kidnapper/intruder would feel comfortable murdering a screaming child in her own home, in a slow and tortuous way, without any fear of being caught by other people in the house. Wouldn’t a scared intruder kill her quickly instead of slowly torturing her?
The documentary mentions the biggest evidence to support the intruder theory: unknown male DNA was found in JonBenét’s underwear and on her longjohns that she was wearing when her body was found. All of the Ramseys’ DNA did not match this unknown DNA. What the documentary didn’t mention is that police have not ruled out that this DNA could have been touch DNA, which is DNA that could have gotten there if a man, such as a store employee or factory worker, had contact with this item of clothing before it was packaged. Because John Ramsey got to JonBenét’s body before the police did, and he carried her body to another location in the house, his DNA was all over critical areas, so it did not prove either way if he killed her or not.
Because this documentary seems to have been made to convince people that the intruder theory is the only correct theory and that Smit should get the most credit for this theory, it’s an echo chamber of people who essentially agree. In addition to John Bennett Ramsey, the documentary has interviews with John Andrew Ramsey (JonBenét’s oldest brother, from John Bennett Ramsey’s first marriage); Smit’s daughter Cindy Marra; Smit’s son Mark Smit; and Smit’s attorney Greg Walta. Also interviewed are investigative journalist/author Paula Woodward, who covered the JonBenét murder case from the beginning; John Anderson, a retired sheriff of Colorado’s El Paso County; and Ramsey Family private investigator John San Agustin, a former El Paso County Sheriff’s Office commander.
The beginning of the documentary lists Smit’s impressive work credentials, including his role in helping solve the 1991 murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church of Black Forest, Colorado, as if it’s proof that he could never be wrong. He spent more than 20 years working for the Colorado Springs Police Department, in addition to experience working in a coroner’s office and as an investigator for district attorneys. He later became a private investigator who refused any payment and gifts for working on the Ramsey case. John Bennett Ramsey says in the documentary that Smit even refused his offer to buy ice cream for Smit.
And yet for all this investigator experience, Smit is heard on audio saying about the Ramsey case: “I don’t think this ransom note was written by the parents. Look at all the references to death and dying.” It’s as if Smit believes that “good” parents aren’t capable of talking about their children dying. That’s Smit’s opinion, but this opinion shouldn’t be used as proof of the parents’ guilt or innocence in this case.
In another audio clip, Smit says the Ramseys should be ruled out as suspects for this reason: “There’s no bad character with the Ramseys.” Just because someone doesn’t have an arrest record or seems to have a “nice” personality isn’t proof that someone can’t commit murder. It’s an appallingly bad assumption for a murder investigator to have, because it’s based on opinion and bias, not evidence.
This documentary makes it clear that Smit had it stuck in his head that the Ramseys (who were millionaires at the time) couldn’t possibly be involved in this heinous crime. And there’s nothing wrong with believing in “innocent until proven guilty.” But time and again, in audio tapes played in the documentary, Smit makes telling comments that show a conscious or unconscious bias that appears to be based on the Ramsey’s social class. He says he thinks that the Ramseys are too “nice” or “not the kind of people” to be involved in murdering a child. It’s all really code for “I don’t think people in this income bracket should be considered likely suspects.”
One of the most noticeable flaws in this documentary is that it doesn’t offer anything substantial about what kind of person would commit this crime. If the killer was an intruder, then who else had access and intimate knowledge of the Ramsey’s home and sleeping habits to get away with this crime so easily? None of that is mentioned in the documentary, even though Smit and other investigators surely developed profiles of possible suspects.
The documentary has a brief and vague mention of a large computer database of tips from the public and other information that Smit compiled. But he also complains in his audio diaries that the police didn’t follow up on the majority of this information. Smit acknowledges what has already been widely reported: The Boulder PD was fixated on proving the Ramseys guilty, while Smit was fixated on proving the Ramseys were not guilty. The clashes were inevitable, but they show flaws and narrow-mindedness on both sides.
In 1999, a Boulder grand jury indicted John and Patsy Ramsey on two counts of child abuse related to JonBenét’s murder. However, then-Boulder D.A. Alex Hunter declined to prosecute John and Patsy Ramsey, based on lack of evidence. This secret grand jury decision wasn’t made public until 2013. John Bennett Ramsey, who gives credit to Smit for influencing Hunter to make this decision, comments in the documentary that Smit “saved our lives.”
JonBenét’s father doesn’t say anything in the documentary that he hasn’t already said in other interviews. He comments that when people ask him what he would say to JonBenét, it would be this: “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. That’s my job as a dad.”
He also defends JonBenét’s participation in beauty pageants, by saying it was JonBenét, not he or his wife Patsy, who insisted on being in these contests. John and Patsy were vilified for allowing JonBenét to dress and act like an adult in these pageants, with critics claiming it was “proof” that they were bad parents. There has been speculation that JonBenét could have become a murder target because of her pageant activities.
We might never know why JonBenét Ramsey was killed and who murdered her. But her father says in the documentary that the “real tragedy” is that Patsy “has been maligned as awful. She was an amazing mother.” He also says that the Ramsey family and their supporters won’t give up until JonBenét’s killer is caught. Sadly, unless there is a confession backed up with proof, this is a murder that’s unlikely to be solved.
Smit’s family members seem to be carrying on his legacy by being interviewed about the case and by making public his audio and video recordings that he made about his investigation. Smit’s granddaughters Lexi Marra and Jessa Van Der Woerd (who have a JonBenét Ramsey podcast) and his daughter Cindy Marra were prominently featured in ABC’s “20/20” episode titled “The List: Who Killed JonBenét?,” which aired on January 15, 2021.
This “20/20” news report is very similar to “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (including interviewing some of the same people), except the “20/20” report had a variety of interviewees and at least made the effort to discuss other people (besides the Ramseys) who fell under suspicion for the murder. The “20/20” news report also had more mention of Smit’s suspicions (he kept a semi-confidential list that he shared with other investigators) about who could have been the killer. Unfortunately, whatever has been reported in JonBenét Ramsey documentaries like this one just adds up to recycled information that does nothing to make a breakthrough in the case.
Discovery+ premiered “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” on January 4, 2021.
The following content is generally available worldwide, except where otherwise noted. All TV shows listed are for networks and streaming services based in the United States. All movies listed are those released in U.S. cinemas. This schedule is for content and events premiering this week and does not include content that has already been made available.
Monday, January 25 – Sunday, January 31
All times listed are Eastern Time/Pacific Time, unless otherwise noted.
TV One’s third season of “ATL Homicide” premieres on Monday, January 25, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Monday, January 25
“Cotton Field Confession: Ladeddrick Love” (Episode 301) **Season Premiere** Monday, January 25, 9 p.m., TV One
“Death of Innocence” (Episode 105) Monday, January 25, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery
“Nightmare at NXIVM” (Episode 1402) Monday, January 25, 10 p.m., CNBC
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, movie theaters in some parts in the U.S. are closed until further notice. Some independent movie theaters that are physically closed are showing new movies online, as part of a “virtual cinema” program.
No new true-crime movies premiering in theaters this week.
Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer
Premiere: Wednesday, January 27
Description from Investigation Discovery:
It’s been over a decade since 11 bodies were found on the coast of Long Island. While many have attempted to solve the murders, no one has looked into just why the case remains unsolved…until now. Against a backdrop of police corruption, sexual misconduct and cover ups at the highest levels of the Suffolk County Police Department, co-hosts Alexis Linkletter (The First Degree) and Billy Jensen (The Murder Squad) investigate the investigation itself to expose the untold story of the Long Island Serial Killer. In a search for answers to one of the biggest unsolved murder mysteries in American history, the seven-part true crime podcast series Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer releases January 27, and will release weekly on Wednesdays on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
Events listed here are not considered endorsements by this website. All ticket buyers with questions or concerns about the event should contact the event promoter or ticket seller directly.
All start times listed are local time, unless otherwise noted.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, most in-person events in the U.S. have been cancelled or postponed if the event was expecting at least 50 people in the year 2021. Many events that would normally be in-person are now being held as virtual/online events.
Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed rural area of Canada, the horror flick “Hunter Hunter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (and one indigenous person) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A husband, wife and their 12-year-old daughter, who live together in a remote area, have to deal with a suspected killer wolf and encounter some surprises.
Culture Audience: “Hunter Hunter” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “slow burn” horror films that have unexpected twists.
The horror flick “Hunter Hunter” has a relatively small cast, but the movie is big on gradually building suspense, which culminates in a shocking and very gruesome ending. This is not a movie for people who get easily squeamish at the sight of blood. But if you can tolerate blood-drenched scenes in a movie, then “Hunter Hunter” might make you curious enough to see what’s going to happen in the movie’s much-talked-about ending.
Written and directed by Shawn Linden, “Hunter Hunter” starts off as more of a psychological thriller before it turns into a gorefest. And it takes a long time (the first third of the movie) before any real action takes place. It’s a “slow burn” movie that might trick viewers into thinking that it’s going to be a predictable horror flick. It’s not a typical horror film, but the ending of the movie has such an abrupt switch in tone that it’s a climax that will no doubt confuse or anger some viewers.
“Hunter Hunter” takes place in an unnamed remote, wooded area of Canada, where a family of three people live in a modest wood house and get most of their food from hunting or growing food on their land. (The movie was actually filmed in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Alberta.) Joseph “Joe” Mersault (played by Devon Sawa) and his wife Anne (played by Camille Sullivan) live as quiet recluses with their homeschooled 12-year-old daughter Renee (played by Summer H. Howell), who is a very inquisitive and perceptive child. The family has also has a male dog named Tova.
Although the Mersaults live in a very primitive way (they don’t have electricity or phone service), they aren’t completely cut off from the world. They have a truck, which is the main way that they can make money for their fur trappings or get any needed help. Joe and Anne mostly have contact with the nearest general store, where they drive to get supplies and sell fur or other animal products.
This farming season hasn’t been a good one for the family. The harsh winter weather has yielded a smaller number of crops than usual. And money is tight. When Anne goes to the general store, she doesn’t have enough cash to buy what she needs. She offers to do a trade deal with the store’s manager, but it’s still not enough to get all the items that she wants.
To make matters worse, there are signs that there’s a wolf on the loose that’s been eating the rabbits, racoons and other animals that the family depends on for meat. While out hunting, Joe and Renee find a racoon’s paw in a trap, with the paw showing signs that the rest of the body was chewed off.
When Anne is at the general store, she notices a real-estate flyer on the bulletin board. The flyer is advertising a house for sale in the suburban city of Kearney. Anne takes the flyer. Astute viewers will also notice that the bulletin board also has a missing-person flyer for a brunette woman in her 30s named Lynne Petit.
While the family is having dinner, the topic of the nuisance wolf comes up. Anne and Joe suspect it’s the same elusive wolf that they’ve been trying to catch for a while. (The movie never goes into details of how Anne and Joe have been trying to get the wolf.)
Joe says of the wolf: “Something’s bringing it back. Either it’s food or it’s a female. If I could figure out what it’s attracted to, I could bait it.” Anne says, “It’s attracted to us. I already know. We’re a steady food supply.”
Whatever is attracting the wolf, Joe makes it clear that he wants to be the only one to handle trapping the wolf. He insists that it’s too dangerous for Anne and Renee. However, Renee persistently begs to tag along with her father, until he eventually relents later in the story. Joe teaches Renee how to look for signs of wolves and bears, how to lay animal traps, and how to skin animals. He also instructs Renee that if she ever encounters a wild animal that can kill humans, she should not run but instead she should calmly walk away.
Anne shows Joe the real-estate flyer for the house in Kearney and mentions that it might be a good idea to buy the home. Joe thinks it’s a crazy idea, since they can barely afford to feed themselves. Anne is insistent that they at least think about moving to a more modern home in a more populated area.
Sensing that they’re going to have an argument about this topic, Joe asks Renee to temporarily leave the table so he can Anne can have the rest of their conversation in private. It’s a tense discussion that Joe really doesn’t want to have. But in order to avoid a major argument, he tells Renee that he’ll at least think about moving, and they can discuss it later.
In another scene in the movie, it’s revealed that Joe and Anne use to have a modern life somewhere else, and it was entirely Joe’s idea to move in a remote area, where they could live off of the land. Anne is really starting to regret that decision. She also thinks that Renee should be raised in an environment where Renee can be around other children.
Anne says to Joe: “It feels like the world has left us behind. There isn’t another generation left.” Joe replies, “There is if we make one. Nothing pushes us out of our life. Not even you.” Anne says the only reason why she chose the life they’re living now is because she chose Joe.
This marital friction is later put on the backburner when strange things start happening. While looking to trap the wolf in the woods, Joe makes a horrifying discovery, which won’t be described in this review, but it’s something that most people would immediately report to police. Oddly, Joe does not tell anyone what he found. When he goes home, he pretends that everything is normal.
And then, the family dog Tova goes missing. Renee is very upset and fears that the wolf might have killed the dog. Anne suspects the same thing, which is why she won’t let Renee accompany her when looking for the Tova in the woods. When Anne goes to look for the dog, she makes a discovery that she also keeps a secret.
Later, Joe goes in the woods again to look for the wolf. And he doesn’t come back when he was expected. After waiting several hours and there’s still no sign of Joe, Anne goes out in the woods to look for him. She can’t find him.
A worried Anne then goes to the nearest place of authority to get help: the Municipal Conservation Department, which mostly responds to complaints about wild animals on people’s property and takes care of cleaning up any roadkill. The two employees on duty are named Barthes (played by Gabriel Daniels) and Lucy (played by Lauren Cochrane), who are both in their 30s.
Barthes and Lucy have a wisecracking banter with each other. They like to sarcastically tease each other with mild insults. But underneath the joking, it’s clear that these co-workers respect each other in a platonic way. When Anne shows up to report that Joe has been missing, she’s disappointed and frustrated when Barthes tells her that there’s nothing that this department can do because the Marsaults live on federal land, which is out of the department’s jurisdiction.
This is where there’s a noticeable plot hole in “Hunter Hunter,” because most worried spouses would then find out which authorities would handle this missing-person case and file the missing-person report there. But Anne doesn’t do that. She just goes home and continues to look for Joe in the woods. She might have been reluctant to go to other authorities because Barthes questioned if the Marsault family had a right to live on federal land, and Anne had a defensive reaction to that line of questioning.
One night, Anne hears some noises coming from the woods. She thinks it might be Joe calling for help, so she takes a risk and goes outside to find out who or what is causing these noises. Instead of finding Joe, she finds an unknown man with an injured leg. He’s barely conscious.
Anne doesn’t hesitate to help this stranger. She brings him into her house and treats the bleeding gash on his leg while he’s passed out. When he regains consciousness, it’s revealed that his name is Lou (played by Nick Stahl), and he says he’s a photographer who foolishly got lost in the woods. It seems as if his legs got tangled in some thorny bushes. When Anne asks Lou if he saw anyone fitting her husband’s description, he says no.
Anne tells Lou that she can drive him to the nearest hospital because he needs professional medical care. Anne mentions that she has limited medical supplies and she doesn’t want his wound to get infected. However, Lou is very reluctant to go to the hospital. Renee wonders why Anne is going to all this trouble to help a stranger, and Anne tells her that it’s what good people are supposed to do. But will this act of kindness be a mistake?
“Hunter Hunter” keeps people guessing on whether or not there’s a supernatural element to the story. Viewers won’t get a clear answer until the last third of the film, where most of the horror takes place. Linden’s twist-filled writing and direction make “Hunter Hunter” a true mystery where the clues aren’t obvious, but they make sense in hindsight to viewers who are really paying attention.
The cast members all do good jobs with their performances, but Sullivan is the clear standout. It’s not just because she has the most screen time, but it’s mainly because her Anne character goes through a metamorphosis from being a dutiful wife to taking charge of the household once her husband goes missing. Because of something extreme that happens at the end of the movie, some viewers will have trouble reconciling it with the rest of the story. However, it’s clear that “Hunter Hunter” doesn’t want to offer easy answers on issues relating to morality or death.
IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Hunter Hunter” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 18, 2020.
Larry King, who was best known for hosting the talk show “Larry King Live” on CNN, died at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, on January 23, 2021. He was 87. King was being treated for COVID-19 for the past several weeks. His death was announced on Twitter by his company Ora Media. Before coming down with COVID-19 King had had several other health issues over the years, including heart attacks, diabetes and lung cancer.
King was a longtime host in radio and television. He reached his greatest fame as the host of CNN’s “Larry King Live” from 1985 to 2010. The show featured a wide variety of guests, including famous entertainers, politicians, business leaders and non-famous people. There are very few celebrities in King’s era whom he didn’t interview. After leaving CNN, King founded Ora Media and hosted a self-titled talk show on the Internet. Jimmy Kimmel, Oprah Winfrey, Piers Morgan (who briefly replaced King on CNN) and Craig Ferguson are among the entertainers who have cited King as a major influence in being a talk show host.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 19, 1933, King was one of two children of restaurant owner/defense-plant worker Aaron Zeiger and garment worker Jennie (Gitlitz) Zeiger, who emigrated to the United States from Belarus. King started his broadcasting career in radio and eventually had a nationally syndicated radio talk show called “The Larry King Show,” which could be heard on Mutual Broadcasting from 1978 to 1985. He left the show to host “Larry King Live” on CNN.
King had a chaotic personal life, with seven wives. His first marriage was annulled, and his next five marriages ended in divorce. His estranged seventh wife, Shawn King (formerly known as singer/actress Shawn Southwick), whom Larry married in 1997, had an on-again/off-again relationship with him. The estranged couple first filed for divorce in 2010, but cancelled those legal proceedings. Larry filed for divorce from her in 2019, but the divorce was never finalized at the time of his death.
Larry is survived by his sons Chance and Cannon (from his marriage to Shawn) and his son Larry Jr., whose mother was King’s second ex-wife Annette Kaye.
The King family has had several tragic deaths within a short period of time. In July 2020, Larry’s son Andy passed away of a heart attack age 65. In August 2020, his 51-year-old daughter Chaia died of lung cancer.
Culture Representation: Taking place in West Hollywood, California, the romantic comedy “Breaking Fast” features cast of Middle Eastern and white characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A gay Lebanese American man, who is a religious Muslim, is still pining over his ex-boyfriend, when he meets a potential new love (a white American man who isn’t Muslim) during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and abstaining from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset.
Culture Audience: “Breaking Fast” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about Arab Americans, Muslim religious practices and the LGBTQ community.
In many ways, “Breaking Fast” sticks to a familiar romantic comedy formula of two people meeting, having a courtship where there’s some fear of commitment, and then getting into a big argument that threatens to ruin the relationship of the would-be couple. But in so many other ways, “Breaking Fast” is definitely not a typical romantic comedy. That’s because much of the movie is about what it’s like to be a gay, religious Muslim and how to handle dating someone who’s neither religious nor Muslim. The results are a charming movie that makes up for some exaggerated acting with genuine heartfelt moments that can be relatable to any adult, regardless of religion or sexuality.
Written and directed by Mike Mosallam, “Breaking Fast” (based on his short film of the same name) takes place in West Hollywood, California, which has a large LGBTQ population. However, Lebanon is a big influence on the movie’s main character Mohammed (played by Haaz Sleiman), a hospital doctor in his mid-30s who goes by the nickname Mo. That’s because Mo’s parents and some other relatives are immigrants from Lebanon. Mo was born in the United States, but he often refers to Lebanon as “home,” as do many of his relatives who live in America.
Mo is a well-respected gastroenterologist who happens to be gay. Everyone in his life knows it, and his family members have accepted his sexuality. Mo, who is an only child, is very close to his mother (played by Rula Gardenier), who can be meddling, effusive and domineering. She keeps pestering Mo about wanting to become a grandmother. Mo could be considered a “mama’s boy” because he talks to his mother on the phone every day, sometimes more than once a day.
Mo’s father, nicknamed Baba (played by Serop Ohennisian), has a very different personality from Mo’s Mother: Baba is laid-back and quiet. Also living in the Los Angeles area are Mo’s aunt (played by Lameece Assaq); Mo’s uncle (played by Abdul Alnaif); and Mo’s beloved maternal grandmother nicknamed Tata (played by Fatima Quwaider), whom he seems to adore the most because she never pressures him to change anything about his life. They are a very tight-knit family who spend a lot of time together.
But not everyone in Mo’s life has this type of supportive and loving family. At the beginning of the movie, Mo and his family are at Mo’s house to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan, a Muslim tradition where for one month, Muslims who observe this tradition have to fast, avoid thinking impure thoughts, and abstain from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. Mo’s boyfriend Hassan (played by Patrick Sabongui) is also there, but he’s not in a celebratory mood.
Hassan, whose entire family is in Lebanon, is still “in the closet” about his sexuality to his family. Hassan is extremely worried because a female cousin has found out that Hassan is gay, and she’s threatening to tell Hassan’s homophobic father. The cousin found out about Hassan’s sexuality through Hassan’s secret Facebook account, which he has now deleted. Hassan is terrified of being disowned by his family.
Mo tries to comfort Hassan and advises him to just continue doing what he’s been doing: Telling his family that he’s single and he’s still looking for the right person. But Hassan is so paranoid about his family finding out the truth that he tells Mo that he’s thinking about finding a woman to marry so that his family won’t even suspect that he’s gay. Mo thinks it’s a terrible idea, and the look on his face shows that Mo also thinks it’s insulting to their relationship for Hassan to go to those lengths to live a lie.
Hassan reminds Mo that Mo doesn’t know what it’s like to live in fear of family who will disown other family members who are LGBTQ. Hassan seems pretty sure that he’s going to go through with a fake marriage. As Hassan joins Mo’s family for the Ramadan dinner and acts like nothing is wrong, Mo looks heartbroken and alienated from the boyfriend he thought he knew.
The movie then fast-forwards to a year later. And sure enough, Mo and Hassan have broken up and are no longer in contact with each other. Mo is in an exercise class with his flamboyant gay best friend Sam (played by Amin El Gamal), who is also a Lebanese American, but he’s not religious in the way that Mo is religious.
During this workout session, Sam chastises Mo for not being able to move on from Hassan. Mo is feeling down because he’s found out through social media that Hassan is now married to a woman and expecting a child with her. Sam thinks that Mo is long overdue to start dating again, so Sam insists that Mo go to Sam’s birthday party that night, even though it’s on the first night of Ramadan.
Mo is very reluctant, but he ends up going to the party. Sam has a crush on a guy named John (played by Christopher J. Hanke), who shows up at the party with a friend named Kal (played by Michael Cassidy), whom Mo initially thinks is out of his league because Kal is so good-looking. When John and Kal go over to Mo and Sam and introductions are made, Mo is friendly, but Mo gives the impression that he’s not looking to date anyone. However, it’s clear that there are undercurrents of attraction between Mo and Kal from the way that Kal jokes with Mo and how Mo seems to like it.
Despite this immediate attraction, the first meeting between Mo and Kal does have some awkward moments. Kal is an actor, and Mo blurts out that he doesn’t understand actors. Kal has the type of dry humor where he can say something that seems serious, but he has tell people that he’s really joking if they take it the wrong way. It happens several times between Kal and Mo that night.
Soon after Mo and Kal meet, Sam is ready to play matchmaker with Mo and Kal and speaks some words of encouragement in Arabic to Mo about it while Kal is standing there. To Sam and Mo’s surprise, Kal speaks Arabic too and lets it be known that he could understand everything that Sam was saying to Mo.
Why does Kal know how to speak Arabic? Kal spent part of his childhood in Jordan, where his military father was stationed. Therefore, Kal is also very familiar with Islam and Muslim traditions. Kal is not religious or Muslim, but he has no problem respecting other people’s religious beliefs. During Mo and Kal’s conversation, Kal finds out that Mo strictly observes Ramadan.
After an embarrassing situation where Sam practically harasses Mo to follow Kal into the bathroom (nothing sexual happens), Mo is ready to call it a night. As Mo is leaving, he notices Kal standing outside. Kal invites Mo to walk with him to a nearby grocery store. Kal tries to make an excuse not to go, but Kal persuades him.
It’s during their walk together that romantic sparks start to fly between Mo and Kal. The icebreaker happens when Kal mentions that his full name is Kal-El, because he was named after the birth name of Superman. That’s when Mo and Kal find out that they’re both big fans of Superman and that their favorite “Superman” movie actor is Christopher Reeve. And they both say that their favorite “Superman” movie is the first one from 1978.
During this conversation, Kal and Mo find out that they both do not drink alcohol. They also talk about how Mo’s Muslim faith affects his life. Kal says to Mo: “It must be hard to find a good Muslim guy in this town … I bet most Muslims [reject] you for being gay, and most gays don’t get down with God.” Mo replies, “I was born gay, and I love God. The two can and should be able to co-exist.”
During this leisurely stroll, Kal mentions that he’s going to head to Fubar, a local gay nightclub, to meet up with some people he knows. He asks if Mo wants to join him, but Mo politely declines and says that nightclubbing isn’t his thing. When Mo and Kal arrive at Fubar, they go their separate ways.
The next day, gossipy Sam finds out that Mo and Kal spent some time together after the party. Naturally, Sam wants to hear all the details. Sam is shocked and disappointed to find out that Mo and Kal didn’t kiss, didn’t exchange phone numbers, and didn’t even tell each other that they wanted to see each other again.
But there would be no “Breaking Fast” movie if Mo and Kal didn’t see each other again. That moment comes when Mo is in an elevator at his hospital job, and Kal just happens to step into the elevator. They are pleasantly surprised to see each other. Mo asks what Kal is doing at the hospital, and Kal says he was there to visit a patient and that everything is fine, but he doesn’t go into further details.
Kal teases Mo by asking him why Mo “ditched” him outside Fubar. Kal says that he thought he made it clear to Mo that night that he was only going to be in the bar for a few minutes. He thought Mo would be waiting for him outside, so Kal was disappointed to see Mo was gone. Meanwhile, Mo expresses genuine surprise and says he wasn’t aware of this misunderstanding.
Kal is more assertive and open about his attraction to Mo, so he suggests coming over to Mo’s place to cook an Iftar dinner for them. Iftar is the after-sunset meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan, to break the fasting for the evening. Mo and Kal have a cute meet-up at a grocery store to buy ingredients for the dinner. It’s where Kal shows his knowledge of Arabic food, and he flirtatiously informs Mo that he doesn’t like stems in tabouli, while Mo playfully disagrees.
Although Kal seems like a great guy, Mo is approaching this possible relationship with caution, not just because it’s starting during Ramadan but also because Mo doesn’t want to get his heart broken again. Mo takes a “let’s be friends first” approach to hanging out with Kal, who respects Mo’s wishes to keep their budding romance chaste, for now. Mo is so strict about following Ramadan that he won’t even allow Kal to talk about kissing during the hours that Ramadan must be observed.
One of the funnier scenes in the movie is when Kal shows up early to Mo’s place for their first dinner date. Mo has just gotten out of shower, wearing nothing but a towel. He answers the door, not expecting Kal to be there. They hug, but Mo’s towel accidentally drops. A mortified Mo then asks Kal not to look as the towel is retrieved. Kal thinks the whole situation is hilarious.
Eventually, Mo and Kal have more home dinner dates, where Kal does the cooking. Mo and Kal open up some more about their backgrounds. Kal reveals that he had a troubled, dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic father whom Kal hints was verbally abusive. Kal’s parents knew that Kal was gay from an early age, and Kal’s beloved mother (who died when Kal was 16) tried to protect Kal in the homophobic military environment where he grew up. Kal is comfortable being openly gay, but he’s not very comfortable talking about painful experiences from his past.
Kal and Mo also tell each other why they chose their respective careers. Kal says that he was inspired to be an actor because when he was a kid, he did skits for his mother, who told Kal that he was the only person who could make her laugh. Despite being in a profession where he gets a lot rejections, Kal says he doesn’t want to do anything else as a career except being an actor. Mo says that he knew he wanted to be a doctor after a terrifying experience as a child, when he was at the movies with his grandmother, who choked on some popcorn and was saved by a doctor who happened to be there.
“Breaking Fast” has some sweet moments during Kal and Mo’s dates. But over time, some of Kal’s and Mo’s differences come to light and could mean trouble for their relationship. Kal is very distant from his family. Mo sees this family estrangement firsthand when he and Kal are on a date, and they happen to run into Kal’s stepmother Judy (played by Veronica Cartwright), who seems to want to have a pleasant conversation with Kal. However, Kal has a hostile reaction to her.
It’s the first time that Kal shows that he’s the easygoing, happy-go-lucky person that he first appeared to be. Some of Kal’s family secrets are eventually revealed. Meanwhile, Mo’s tendency to be rigid and judgmental also causes problems in his relationship with Kal. Mo believes that Hassan’s family problems had a lot to do with why he and Hassan broke up, so Mo is wary of getting romantically involved with another man who has “family baggage.”
Sleiman and Cassidy mostly succeed in their nuanced and layered portrayals of Kal and Mo. who find out whether or not their differences are too big to overcome, or if they can find enough common ground to start a serious romance. Their portrayals are grounded in a lot of realistic emotions, which are complemented by their appealing dialogue.
El Gamal’s Sam character often serves as the film’s often loud and vulgar comic relief, which might get on some viewers’ nerves. Some people might also be turned off by Sam being a very stereotypical effeminate gay character. However, El Gamal brings the type of charisma to the Sam character where—love him or hate him—Sam lights up the screen and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. Sam isn’t just a clownish character, since he has a big dramatic moment in the film where he expresses why he doesn’t agree with Mo’s devotion to Islam.
“Breaking Fast” falters when some of the actors look like they’re trying too hard to be funny. However, the heart of the story remains Mo and Kal’s relationship, which has a lot of emotional authenticity. The movie, under the earnest directing and writing from Mosallam, doesn’t fall into a trap of absurdist melodrama. Instead, the movie has plenty of moments that are true-to-life but told from a complex cultural perspective that isn’t represented too often in American movies.
Vertical Entertainment released “Breaking Fast” on digital and VOD on January 22, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place from 2000 to 2014 in Fairhope, Alabama; New Orleans; and briefly in Pakistan, the dramatic film “Our Friend” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A married couple and their male best friend go through ups and downs in their relationship, especially after the wife gets ovarian cancer and the best friend temporarily moves in the family home to help the spouses take care of their two young daughters.
Culture Audience: “Our Friend” will appeal primarily to people interested in emotionally authentic, dramatic movies about loyal friendships and how cancer affects relationships.
The tearjerker drama “Our Friend,” which is inspired by a true story, departs from the usual formula of a family coping with cancer. When someone in a family has this disease, cancer dramas usually focus on how a spouse, parent or child is dealing with it. Those aspects are definitely in “Our Friend,” but there’s also the unusual component of a male best friend moving into the family household to be a nurturing supporter. Thanks to heartfelt performances from the main cast members, “Our Friend” is a genuine and relatable film, despite being the type of drama where it’s easy to predict exactly how it’s going to end.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Brad Ingelsby, “Our Friend” is based on a 2015 Esquire magazine essay titled “The Friend,” written by journalist Matt Teague. (“The Friend” was the original title for this movie.) In this deeply personal article, he described the generosity of Dane Faucheux, the longtime best friend of Matt and his wife Nicole Teague. After Nicole was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Dane (who was a bachelor at the time) put his life on hold in New Orleans to temporarily move in with the couple in Fairhope, Alabama, to help them take care of their household and the couple’s two young daughters Molly and Evangeline, nicknamed Evie.
The movie “Our Friend” expands on that essay by jumping back and forth in time to show how the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane evolved over 14 years, including the highs, lows and everything in between. The movie’s story spans from the year 2000 (when the three of them met) to the year 2014, when Nicole’s cancer was at its worst. The cinematic version of the story avoids a lot of nauseating details that are in the Esquire essay about bodily functions of a cancer patient. Instead, the movie focuses on showing this intense friendship from the individual perspectives of Matt, Nicole and Dane.
Nicole and Dane met each other while living in New Orleans in their early 20s, when she was one of the stars of a local musical theater production and he was a lighting operator in the crew. Nicole is open-hearted, compassionate and the type of person whom a lot of people feel like could be their best friend. Dane is socially awkward and somewhat introverted but an overall good guy who has some immaturity issues.
In the movie, Nicole was already married to Matt when she met Dane, who didn’t know that Nicole was married when he asked Nicole out on a date. Dane’s courtship mistake is never shown in the movie, but it’s mentioned in conversations. Once Nicole told Dane about her marital status, they were able to overcome this minor embarrassment and became good friends. Dane and Nicole are comfortable enough with each other that talk about their love lives with each other.
Dane is thoughtful and generous (he gives homemade mix CDs to Nicole), and he and Nicole love to talk about music, even when they agree to disagree. She thinks Led Zeppelin is “the greatest band ever,” while he doesn’t really care for Led Zeppelin. The Led Zeppelin reference in the movie is significant because two of Led Zeppelin’s original songs—”Ramble On” and “Going to California”—are used in emotional montage scenes in “Our Friend.”
By making Nicole an actress who loves musical theater, “Our Friend” gives Johnson a chance to showcase her singing skills, which are very good but not outstanding. Johnson sings two songs in the movie: “Hands All Hands Around” (from the musical “Quilters”) and a cover version of the Grateful Dead’s “If I Had the World to Give.” Johnson also did some singing in her 2020 movie “The High Note,” so maybe this is her way of demonstrating that she wants to be a professional singer too.
One day, Dane asks for Nicole’s advice about how to approach a theater co-worker named Charlotte (played by Denée Benton) whom he wants to ask out on a date. Unbeknownst to him, Charlotte isn’t attracted to Dane and has already been dating the theater’s stage manager named Aaron (played by Jake Owen). Minutes after Dane confides in Nicole that he’s going to ask Charlotte on a date, Charlotte tells Nicole in a private conversation that she suspects that Dane has a crush on her but Charlotte isn’t interested in dating Dane. It’s one of many examples in the movie that show how Nicole is a trusted confidante to many people in her life and she knows how to make people feel special.
Of course, Dane eventually finds out that Charlotte and Aaron are dating. Dane mopes about it for a little bit when he sees Charlotte and Aaron showing some heavy public displays of affection at a bar on the night that Nicole introduces Matt to Dane. The first time Matt and Dane meet, it’s at this bar, and Dane makes an apology to Matt for asking Nicole out on a date. Matt tells Dane not to worry about it and says that he has no hard feelings.
While Dane watches Charlotte and Aaron from a distance at the bar, Dane seem to takes their coupling way more personally than he should. He grumbles to Nicole and Matt that Charlotte seems to be rubbing her feelings for Aaron in Dane’s face. It’s a sign (one of many) that one of Dane’s flaws is that he can be emotionally insecure and overly needy.
As the movie skips back and forth in time, it’s eventually shown that Charlotte and Aaron have gotten married and have two children together. Charlotte and Nicole remain very close friends, even after Matt and Nicole move to Fairhope. Matt and Nicole relocated to Fairhope so that Nicole could be close to her parents. The parents of Matt and Nicole parents are never seen in the movie. After Nicole finds out that she has cancer in 2012, Matt tells Dane that Nicole has been afraid to tell her parents about the cancer diagnosis.
By the time that Nicole and Matt are living in Fairhope during her cancer ordeal, it’s shown in the movie that their daughter Molly (played by Isabella Kai) is about 11 or 12 years old, while their daughter Evie played by Violet McGraw) is about 5 or 6 years old. Molly is sometimes moody and quick-tempered, while Evie is generally a happy-go-lucky kid. Molly’s personality is more like Matt’s, while Evie is more like Nicole.
Over the years, it’s apparent that Aaron likes to make snide, condescending comments about Dane to other people whenever Dane isn’t around to defend himself. Aaron always makes digs about Dane working in dead-end jobs (such as a sales clerk at an athletic clothing store) and Dane not seeming to have an career goals or any real direction in life. Dane (who has a goofy sense of humor) has tried to be a stand-up comedian, but these dreams never really go anywhere, mainly because he just isn’t that talented. However, when Dane practices his stand-up routine for Nicole, she politely laughs at his corny jokes, and it makes him feel good.
Dave has financial problems, to the point where he’s sometimes temporarily homeless and has to stay at friends’ places or has to move back home with his parents, and he seems unsure of his purpose in life. B y contrast, Matt’s career as a journalist is flourishing. One of Matt’s first jobs was as a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he felt stifled and bored with covering fluffy local news. Matt’s real goal is to be a globetrotting journalist, where he gets to cover what he calls “important” news, such as wars and politics, that can make a big difference in people’s lives.
Matt gets his wish and his career is thriving as a freelancer covering war news for publications such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. But all that traveling has taken a toll on his marriage to Nicole. In 2008, while Matt is on assignment in Pakistan, he and Nicole have an argument on the phone because he took an assignment to go to Libya without discussing it with Nicole first.
Matt doesn’t think that he did anything wrong, because he says that the family needs the money. Nicole, who’s now a homemaker, tells Matt that she feels like she’s a “single parent” and complains to him: “I feel like I married a war correspondent, not a journalist.”
Matt goes home for a few days before he has to go to Libya. And he gets unsolicited advice from Dane to not take the assignment in Libya and stay with the family. This leads to an argument between Matt and Dane where Dane points out Matt’s personality flaws, while Matt insults Dane for having a directionless life with no real career.
Because the movie’s timeline is not in chronological order, viewers have to piece together the ebbs and flows of the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane. There are hints that Dane struggles with his mental health, especially in an extended scene taking place in 2010 that shows Dane abruptly packing up and leaving his parents’ house so he can go camping by himself in remote Southwest canyons. Before he leaves, Dane’s older brother Davey (played by Richard Speight Jr.) asks Dane if Dane is having one of his “episodes.”
During this solitary excursion, Dane meets a friendly German camper named Teresa (played by Gwendoline Christie), who’s also traveling by herself. Teresa asks Dane to join her on her hikes. Dane is standoffish at first, but Teresa insists on hanging out with Dane, and he eventually warms up to her a little bit. Teresa senses that Dane is deeply troubled and unhappy with his life, so she shares with him a very personal experience that changes his perspective. It’s one of the better scenes in the movie, proving that not all of the emotional gravitas in “Our Friend” has to do with Nicole’s cancer diagnosis.
However, “Our Friend” is still very much a cancer movie. There’s the heart-wrenching scene showing Matt and Nicole deciding how they are going to break the news to their children that Nicole is going to die from cancer. There’s the predictable scene where Nicole makes a “bucket list” of things she wants to do before she dies, with Matt and Dane frantically trying to make some of the more difficult things on the list (such as being grand marshal of the next Mardi Gras parade) come true for Nicole. And then there are the expected scenes of Nicole having medication-related meltdowns.
The Teague family members also have the misfortune of their beloved pet pug Gracie being diagnosed with cancer around the same time that Nicole gets sick with cancer. While Matt spends time with Nicole in the hospital, Dane has the task of taking Gracie to the veterinarian, who tells Dane that it’s best if the terminally ill dog undergoes euthanasia. Dane, who is not the owner of the dog, is put in the awkward position of having to represent the Teague family when the dog is permanently put to sleep. Dane also has to tell Molly and Evie the bad news about Gracie’s death, because Matt and Nicole are too preoccupied in the hospital.
During all of this cancer drama, Dane gets some pushback and criticism for deciding to move in with Matt and Nicole. At the time of Nicole’s cancer diagnosis, Dane was living in New Orleans and had been dating a baker named Kat (played by Marielle Scott) for about a year. Dane and Kat’s relationship has progressed to the point where Kat has given him spare keys to her home.
At first, Kat was fine with Dane going to visit the Teagues in Fairhope (which is about 160 miles away from New Orleans), as a show of support for the family. But the visits became longer and longer, until Dane eventually moved in with the Teagues. And Kat wasn’t so okay with that decision. Aaron also makes snarky comments to the Teagues’ circle of friends about Dane being a freeloader, until Matt eventually puts Aaron in his place for being such an unrelenting jerk about Dane.
The movie also shows that Matt and Nicole have other challenges in their lives besides her cancer. Before she was diagnosed with cancer, their marriage hit a rough patch due to issues over jealousy and infidelity. And before and during Nicole’s cancer crisis, Molly was feeling resentment toward Matt because of his long absences from home. Molly sometimes lashes out at Matt and makes it clear that she thinks Nicole is a much better parent than Matt is.
The biggest noticeable flaw about “Our Friend” is there seems to be a gender double standard in how the three main characters physically age in the movie. Nicole looks like she’s barely aged throughout the entire movie, even though the story takes place over the course of 14 years. It’s a contrast to how Matt and Dane age over the years, particularly with their hair. In the early years of the friendship, Segel wears a wig to make Dane look younger, while in the later years, he sports his natural receding hairline. Likewise, Affleck’s natural gray hair is seen in the later years of the friendship.
This discrepancy has a lot to do with the fact that in real life, Johnson is 14 years younger than Affleck, and she’s nine years younger than Segel. The real Nicole, Matt and Dane were much closer to each other in age. This movie’s unwillingness to show a woman aging over 14 years and casting a much-younger female co-star as the love interest of the leading male actor are part of bigger age discrimination issues that make it harder for actresses over the age of 35 to be cast as a love interest to someone who’s close to their age.
And when Nicole has cancer, the physical damages from cancer are barely shown. There’s the typical “dark circles under the eyes” look with makeup, as well as mentions of Nicole’s hair falling out because of chemotherapy. (At various times, she wears a headband or a wig.)
But the movie could have used a little more realism in showing the devastating physical toll that cancer can take. More often than not in the cancer scenes, the movie makes Nicole just look like she’s hung over from a wild night of partying, instead of looking like a real cancer patient who’s deep in chemotherapy. It’s not as if Johnson had to lose a scary amount of weight to look like a convincing cancer patient, but more could have been done with makeup and/or visual effects to make it look more realistic that her character was dying of cancer.
However, the filmmakers (including film editor Colin Patton) should get a lot of credit for taking the non-chronological scenes and making everything into a cohesive story that’s easy to understand. “Our Friend” is not the type of movie that can be watched while distracted by something else, because the year that a sequence takes place is shown on the screen to guide viewers. People watching this movie have to pay attention to these milestone year indicators to get the full scope of the story.
“Our Friend” is a well-cast movie where all the actors do convincing portrayals of the emotions expressed in the movie. (Cherry Jones has a small but important role as a hospice nurse named Faith Pruett.) As much as the movie is about Matt and Nicole’s marriage, it’s also very much about the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane.
Even though Nicole and Dane were friends before Dane and Matt knew each other, Nicole and Dane’s friendship starts to wane a little bit, the more debilitated with cancer she becomes. There’s a noticeable brotherly bond that develops between Matt and Dane, especially when they have to face the reality of life without Nicole. It doesn’t diminish Nicole’s role in the film, but it realistically shows how relationships can change when people have to prepare for the end of a loved one’s life. “Our Friend” is not an easy film to watch for anyone who hates to think about dying from cancer, but the sadness in the movie is balanced out by the joy of having true love from family and friends.
Roadside Attractions and Gravitas Ventures released “Our Friend” in U.S. cinemas, on January 22, 2021, the same date that Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released the movie on digital and VOD.